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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Coronavirus Forces South Side Block Clubs To Go Virtual, Overcoming ‘Digital Divide’ For Older Residents

"Our goal is ... to find creative ways to get the elders more comfortable with digital organizing, versus what they’re accustomed to — which we won't be able to do for a long time."

Members of the Central South Shore area council, which was formed in May 2019 and has 88 members.
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SOUTH SHORE — With in-person meetings made impossible right as recruitment efforts were taking off, the biggest challenge for members of the Neighborhood Network Alliance, a group of block clubs on the Southeast Side, has been overcoming the “digital divide” for its elderly organizers.

Since Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay at home order was announced March 21, organizers have shifted their focus to a series of virtual talks around health and wellness. The first one, a discussion on mental health during the pandemic, is set for April 30.

Before the pandemic, the nonprofit, formerly known as the Southeast Side Block Club Alliance, focused on bringing neighbors together in person. Similar to the defunct South Shore Commission, the alliance aims to give residents a collective voice on economic, health, education and other quality of life issues.

The Neighborhood Network Alliance’s primary focus has been on restarting area councils — resident groups of 40 or so blocks that formed the backbone of community organizing in South Shore decades ago.

“Our goal is to meet people where they are, tap into the human capital on the block, and use it to change the block,” said Val Free, lead steward of the Neighborhood Network Alliance.

The Jackson Park Highlands Association is the only one that’s remained active through the years, while the Central South Shore council was re-founded last May.

A few dozen neighbors came out March 3 for the kickoff of the Bryn Mawr East council, bounded by 71st and 75th Streets and Jeffery and Yates Boulevards. Just two weeks later, before another meeting could be held, Pritzker’s stay at home order went into effect.

The Bryn Mawr East council was supposed to have its first virtual meeting earlier this month, but it was canceled “because most of the constituent base is not prepared for video conferencing,” she said.

“Our goal is … to find creative ways to get the elders more comfortable with digital organizing, versus what they’re accustomed to — which we won’t be able to do for a long time,” Free said.

In the meantime, the Neighborhood Network Alliance “hasn’t seen a drop-off [in participation], we’re just adjusting,” Free said.

Engagement is still high among existing members of the Central South Shore area council, president Linda Young said. The 88-member council covers residents from 75th to 79th Streets and Jeffery to Yates Boulevards.

Virtual meetings, like next week’s discussion, give council members a way to stay active. But they’ll likely pause recruitment efforts for the rest of the year, though organizers are still “toying with” ways of expanding membership, she said.

Potential recruits “are inundated with these meetings and technology,” Young said. “I don’t think folks want to participate in all these conference calls. They’re saying, ‘Let me focus on survival.'”

Though coronavirus has limited recruitment and highlighted the inequalities between Chicago’s neighborhoods, it’s also made clear the importance of one’s “immediate community,” Young said.

Through their area council and elsewhere, she hopes South Shore residents continue to value their neighbors and advocate for their community once the pandemic is over.

“I hope [the pandemic] makes people look at their communities in a different light and see the value of having the things that you need right around you,” Young said. “It’s sort of throwing back to those old-school times, when neighbors borrowed a cup of sugar.”

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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